The whole of the small shed which was Kendall Stockton’s home shuddered, sending specks of grit pattering into her cropped blonde curls and sliding down the newssheet she held. The strange sound was gone as soon as she’d registered it, leaving all the geese and ducks and chickens which roamed the Back Green squawking their heads off.
Not able to guess what was happening, Kendall dashed outside. Nothing odd in the garden or around the blackened remains of Gran’s house, so she ran round the other side of her shed, and stopped to stare. There was someone lying in the middle of the Green.
It was still well before evening, and the Green fell inside the village’s circle, so Kendall felt safe taking a few halting steps closer. Lying there unmoving was a woman in a white dress, her arms stretched to either side, and her long pale hair fanned out around her.
"Are – are you hurt?"
There was no reply, only the retreating protest of fowl, and a shout from the Lippon house. Kendall hadn’t been the only one in Falk to hear and feel…whatever had happened. Wanting to see more before the entire Lippon clan arrived, Kendall crossed to within a few feet of the strange figure.
The woman didn’t move at all, just lay there in the grass. She was beautiful. Her long hair curled from a wide forehead, around her pointed face and all the way out to the very tips of her fingers. That hair wasn’t much darker than her dress, and her skin was whiter than seemed possible. Though her eyes were shut, and Kendall could see no sign of movement, the woman didn’t look dead. Her chin was up, and her head didn’t sag to either side. Even her feet were neatly together.
"It’s a lady!" The first of the Lippons had arrived. Fearless Jessamy, skidding to a halt just beside Kendall. "Ever so fine!"
True. The long, white dress shimmered in the sunlight, and the stitching was better than any fancywork Kendall had ever seen. Unlike Kendall, Jessamy didn’t shy off taking the last few steps to the woman’s side, but gasped and fell back, sitting down in a heap.
"What happened, Jessa?" asked Harry, the oldest of the Lippon boys, panting up at the head of the second wave of tow-headed Lippons.
"The – the air got heavy," Jessamy replied, sounding confused but not hurt.
"Heavy? What do you mean?" Harry moved beside his sister, and held forward a cautious hand. This didn’t make him fall over, but Kendall saw sudden surprise on his face, and his hand trembled.
All the younger Lippons were crowding up now, fanning out in a circle behind Jessamy, while others from the village were appearing at the edges of the Green. Miller Best had brought his new musket, but lowered it after seeing the woman.
"Isn’t she pretty?"
"Look at that dress!"
"Is she dead?"
As the crowd and the questions grew, Kendall edged around to one side, and held her hand toward the woman until she felt it go strange and heavy. It was possible to keep it there, but it was like holding a full bucket out at arm’s-length. No wonder Jessamy had fallen, running right into this. Kendall’s nose itched, and she backed away.
Then Mayor Dorstan arrived from the bakery, his arms still streaked with flour, though he’d left his apron behind.
"Stand back, the lot of you," he ordered impatiently. "Give the woman some air." He started to kneel beside the stranger, then grunted with sudden effort. The mayor was a big man, all muscle except in the gut, and they could see the struggle it was for him not to fall. But Mayor Dorstan was stubborn, too, and he continued slowly down on one knee and reached out to touch the woman’s hand.
"My Lady?" he said. "Can you hear me?"
"She’s warm." His fingers circled her wrist as if to lift it, but the only thing that happened was the muscles in his arms and shoulders stood out, and his face went slowly purple.
"What in Fel’s name is this?" Mayor Dorstan muttered, then gave up and pushed himself to his feet, staggering away. Sweat dripped from his face, and he took quite a time to get his breath. The woman just lay there while more and more villagers gathered, and stared, and wondered.
"Did anyone see her arrive?" Mayor Dorstan asked finally, still huffing a little.
"No-one’s come in since Cooper Robbins," said Kalan Huxtal. "I would have seen aught else. Sure as shine would have seen this’un."
"If you’d been using your eyes, maybe," Mayor Dorstan growled, glaring about him. He didn’t like magic, wasn’t even glad when the Circle-Turners arrived to make their rounds, and hated more anything that didn’t make sense. "Someone must have seen her."
It was hard to imagine any lady, dressed beacon-white and with all that hair, getting even a step into Falk without half the village spotting her. But no-one had. She was just there, unmoving, and immovable.
A morning in the sitting room had sent Rennyn Claire’s eyes blurry. She’d been conscientiously transcribing one of the older books into neater, less faded script, adding commentary as she went. Surely she could allow herself an afternoon’s work on the much-neglected garden until the world became less fogged.
She was passing by the Map Room when a muted THuNK froze her in place. Not quite believing, Rennyn stared through the doorway at the model of Tyrland. For the whole of her twenty-five years, and long before, a black spindle had been suspended above the map, swaying at the end of a single hair fixed to the ceiling. Now it was buried an inch deep in a flat patch near the city of Sark.
The Verisian clock’s ticking caught her attention, as if it had deliberately grown louder to remind her that time was marching on.
"So." Rennyn couldn’t think of anything less feeble to say, and went upstairs to pack. Sark was a day, a day and a half’s ride away. Cuddy wouldn’t appreciate the pace, and would make her regret not keeping the bay properly exercised, but it was better to ride than attract attention travelling more quickly.
"Ren! Ren!" Her brother came tearing up the stairs, only to notice her travelling gear. "Oh, you’ve seen."
She nodded, keeping herself cool for his sake. Sebastian was just sixteen, and most-ways sensible, but he fretted. "Can you start on the calculations while I’m gone, Seb?"
He tugged at his hair impatiently, eyes bright in his thin, clever face. "Yes. Yes, of course. You will – I’ll have them done before you get back. Three days, right?"
"Thereabouts. Perhaps a little more, depending on what I find."
"Ren." He was thinking ahead now, concern edging through the excitement.
"This is the easy part, Seb," she said, touching his arm.
"Just – remember Great Grandfather."
That made her smile. "As if either of us ever forget."
After rechecking the location on the map, she paused in the hall and carefully tugged a comb through her hair, handing it to Seb when she was done. Turning her attention to arranging her hat, she frowned at the sight she presented. Cold determination had set her features into lines she barely recognised.
With some effort, she wiped any trace of her thoughts from her face, became the picture of a young countrywoman out for an afternoon’s ride. All their lives, she and Seb had been preparing for that spindle to drop. She refused to falter at the first hurdle.
The village was called Falk, and lay just south of one of Tyrland’s major cities, Sark. Rennyn was fairly certain Cuddy would never forgive her for riding till the very edge of night, then rising so early the next morning, but there was a time limit to what she had to do, and she needed to do it without being observed.
Somehow. Falk swarmed, as overrun as a harvest fair, and Rennyn shook her head at the mass of people buying, selling and gawping. It had been little more than a day: how had they assembled so quickly?
Attention was centred around a grassy area behind the main body of houses. It had been roped off, and was barely visible through the stalls and crowds lined up to pay for entry. This was not how Rennyn had pictured this day, but she decided that it was after all an advantage. Among so many, she was wholly unremarkable. It should be possible to hide her actions in plain sight.
Paying a coin, she left Cuddy to be watered and rubbed down while she waited in line. It was hot, a little past midday, and the press of folk made it seem hotter still. Rennyn adjusted her hat and gazed about at all the people come to see something strange and intriguing. Children who chattered or squabbled. Merchants bargaining over vegetables. Young couples, standing close together. A hired guard carefully cleaning his musket. She felt like she was on the other side of a pane of glass, as if she were in the world beside this one, and none of these people could see her.
Sternly, Rennyn forced herself to smile and look excited. Remember Great Grandfather, Seb had said. Remember the threat of violent death.
The people of Falk were charging a petthine to view their newly acquired curiosity, controlling the influx by only allowing groups of ten through at a time. Rennyn might have been annoyed by their greed if she did not have a reasonable idea of w ...